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Responding to Syria’s Education Crisis: Critical Points for the International Community

Children attend a class at Quru Gusik refugee camp on the outskirts of the city of Arbil in Iraq's Kurdistan region (REUTERS/Yahya Ahmad).

The refugee flows out of Syria are tremendous and are on the rise, with a million fleeing the country in the last six months alone.  Before the conflict, over 93 percent of children were enrolled in primary school and 67 percent were enrolled in secondary school.  Now, 90 percent of Syrian children and youth between the ages of 6-17 are estimated to be out of school. More than 3,000 schools have been damaged or destroyed since the conflict began in 2011.

Syria’s neighbors are left with an undue burden and the response from the international community is inadequate despite ongoing efforts. For instance, in Turkey where Syrians outnumber nationals two to one in border towns, only 28 percent of the $372 million appeal has been fulfilled by the international community.  In Lebanon, only a quarter of the refugee children are in school. Public schools in Lebanon are too under-resourced to respond to this crisis given that there will soon be more refugee children than the pre-war capacity of the Lebanese school system.  In response to this, the United Nations Special Envoy for Global Education Gordon Brown has called for the international community to contribute $500 million to support refugees in Lebanon based on recommendations from my Brookings colleague, Kevin Watkins.

UNICEF and other organizations are working to provide for the educational needs of the children in Syria as well as those who have fled the country. However, the ongoing conflict in Syria has created hurdles for international agencies working to support education. In addition, the unprecedented increase of refugees fleeing the country has outpaced planning.  The U.N. Syria Regional Response Plan 4 anticipated and planned for coverage for up to 1.1 million refugees through the end of June, but this estimate has been surpassed and is projected to swell to 3.45 million by the end of the year.  UNICEF’s funding gap for education services in the surrounding countries that border Syria is over $93 million (not including provision of other life-saving services).

Clearly, the crisis in Syria has reached historic proportions and Syria’s crisis in education is equally great.  The international community must keep several points in mind when considering how to respond Syria’s education crisis.

  1. Education plays a pivotal role in the lives of children and youth, for which there is no substitute.  Even during war, education must be provided because no child, youth, or society can bear the consequences of missing education.  This is particularly important given that the Syrian refugees may be displaced for a long period of time.  Syrian parents and families deeply value education, and education helps to promote a sense of normalcy in conflict situations; this is especially relevant for the 4 million Syrian children that have been affected by the current conflict
  2. Investing in local capacity is critical.  The international response must reach those groups and agencies that are currently providing services at the local level and will be for many years.  This includes public school systems as well as local non-profits and civil-society organizations.  Supporting these systems during the emergency response will help to lay the ground work for the longer-term development work that is also needed.
  3. Youth, in addition to children, must feature in international efforts to support refugee education.  From a security and a stability perspective, there are key reasons to support not only children, but also youth throughout the educational lifecycle. Youth are affected by the pressures of unemployment, which are exacerbated by forced migration, language barriers and conflict.  Already, youth unemployment in the Middle East region is among the highest in the world.  Employers complain of youth’s lack of transferable skills and poor preparation for the world of work. Indeed, the dissatisfaction among youth in region over their inability to participate fully in economic and political life can threaten stability and security for the region. This was widely visible during the youth protests of the Arab Spring, and radicalization of young people by insurgent groups is in part a result of poor education systems and a lack of educational and vocational alternatives.
  4. Gender dimensions are critical during conflict and must be studied and understood. Where there are gender biases in educational systems and labor markets, conflict creates distortions and these are important to understand and address.  A recent report cites that female Syrian youth in Lebanon were more restricted because their families confined their movements for fear of their safety and because of their discomfort with mixed gender schools.  Male youth faced greater pressure to earn an income where their fathers were unable to work.
  5. Youth voices provide important input to policy.  The voices of young Syrian refugees should be fundamental in global education discourse, particularly as this conflict coincides with the writing of a new global development framework to follow the Millennium Development Goals in 2015.  There are many Syrian youth leaders.  The international community should get their insights and perspective on how to prepare the next generation to reintegrate, rebuild, and reconstruct Syria.
  6. Focus on learning outcomes. The international community and host countries must ensure that the education that the refugees receive promotes positive learning outcomes.  This requires a direct focus on learning-related issues that will arise for refugees in host countries, including language and curriculum differences.  This also requires recognition that providing enough seats in schools through double-shifting without addressing issues that will affect education quality will be insufficient.  Teachers must be supported in order to achieve this. Additionally, countries, agencies, and organizations providing education services should hold themselves accountable by measuring learning outcomes for refugees in their programs in ways that promote more effective instruction and learning.   
  7. Coordination is critical.  Coordinating the provision of education after conflict is complicated by the range of actors involved and by the different approaches and frameworks that guide actors, including development, security, humanitarian, climate change and disaster risk reduction approaches.  Furthermore, in the countries hosting refugees from Syria, the issues affecting children and youth are different depending on political and social context, language, school fees and structure, curriculum, and other factors. Despite the complexity, coordination is key to ensuring that services are provided to those in need.  The groups that provide coordination opportunities require resources and support to continue this function. 
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